On the Chocolate Trail

On the Chocolate Trail in Belize’s Jungle

Mark and I happily signed on for three distinct rainforest chocolate experiences within a 15 mile radius of our home base, the romantic Cotton Tree eco-lodge which is nestled among Mayan villages near the Caribbean in the Toledo District of Belize. Not only did Belize envelop us in an exotic rainforest experience, our tourism contributed to the economic viability and sustainability of the region. Happily, colorful cacao pods and trees also dotted our jungle breakfast view.

My pre-trip conversations with Cotton Tree Chocolate founding partners, Jeff Pzena and Erin Andrews oriented me a bit to what we might see in our chocolate excursions. When planning the logistics from NYC to the Lodge via the town of Punta Gorda, we had noticed that the only option for the last segment had to be on a small plane. However, we had not quite absorbed how small. As I waited nervously to board what turned out to be the single engine, ten seater, I figured that I should eat chocolate, just in case. Last meal and all. The tasty Belizean chocolate bar actually fortified me to look out the windows at the breathtaking and varied patchworks of green and blue.

Eladio’s Organic Farm and Chocolate Demo  

A couple of days later, a 45 minute drive from the Lodge brought us to our first chocolate outing at the organic farm of Eladio Pop. Eladio is spiritual about his farming, reciting visions of Jesus predicting our visit and instructing him to farm by intercropping. Note the small cacao pod around his neck as if exposing his heart. Pop fed us wild ginger, a heart of palm stalk straight from the earth, a Jamaican lime, turmeric, cacao pulp and seeds. (Some videos: Eladio .01, Eladio .02)

Eladio preaches about what he calls Adam/padre and Eve/madre cacao trees. The Adam/padre tree bears a fruit shaped like a cacao pod with a harder, grooved shell. It shades the madre/Eve.

Cacao pods with seeds germinating on the forest/jungle floor.

Mark also harvested “pulled” a cacao pod and opened it

Back in town at Eladio’s home, his daughter-in-law demonstrated the traditional method of Mayan making chocolate. (Videos: a total of about 30 minutes 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07,08)

We cracked, winnowed, ground, and tasted unsweetened chocolate drink, the Mayan way, from a gourd.

Cotton Tree Chocolate  

This may be the smallest chocolate factory we have ever visited. While it was initially located at our Lodge it has moved to the nearby town of Punta Gorda to insure a steady electrical supply. CTC produces a very delicious chocolate from local cacao beans, one of only a few examples of chocolate growing and production in the same region. (Often beans are exported to be processed in more industrialized countries.) We poured a personalized bar, and sampled from the small batch, flavorful bars are available on line. Here’s a brief video of the initial stages of the process.

Back at Cotton Tree Lodge we watched as freshly harvested cacao seeds and pulp were delivered. Two huge barrels of seeds were being separated into five-gallon double-buckets (with holes in the inner buckets) for draining/drying. We were able to observe these early stages of production.

There, Nazario explained how he carefully tracks the temperature of the fermentation several times a day and how he monitors the weather for drying the beans in the sun. He gave us a detailed explanation of his process… and a bottle of frozen cacao juice made from the pulp. These beans eventually end up at the Cotton Tree Chocolate factory for final stages of chocolate making.


Our third chocolate outing was just a 2.5 mile walk away in the Mayan village of San Felipe at Ixcacao. Juan and Abelina Cho run a chocolate bar making and touring business.

They believe that “chocolate will save the rainforest” but it cannot be monoculture. Cacao needs other trees and the ecosystem.

Their bars of infusions from jungle vanilla, coffee, orange, and ginger are sold only from the refrigerator in their store or in  North Carolina. At the demo Juan passionately explains cacao and then everyone tastes. Abelina makes a brief appearance in her Mayan clothes as she preps the lunch for the group.

Juan showing cacao seeds in the pulp just out of the pod:

Cacao may be essential to the ecosystem of the rainforest, just as the ecosystem of the jungle supports cacao. In the almost 15 years since start up, Cotton Tree Lodge–with its chocolate, thatched roof cabanas, “blue cacao dream” cocktails, and howler monkey wake-up calls–have become essential to the economy of the neighboring communities. That flight on the little plane was worth it. Not to speak of the chocolate. 

Thank you to Mark for videos and photos.

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On the Chocolate Trail

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